David Thompson travelled over 90,000 km working as a mapmaker, fur trader, explorer and writer. From 1792 to 1812, Thompson travelled across western and northern Canada and the northwest US, mapping the lands west of Hudson Bay and Lake Superior, across the Rocky Mountains and continued down the length of the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. He mapped 3.9 million square kilometres, about 1/6th of the North American continent in meticulous detail, pinpointing the location of dozens of trade posts and trade routes. Today, many national historic sites and national parks in western Canada have a connection to David Thompson. His maps and journals capture a detailed view of these significant places for future generations.
Thompson travelled west with the fur trade and frequented Rocky Mountain House, in the foothills of what is now Alberta. He used the fort as a base for his trans-mountain travels and spent much time writing in his journals, mastering his orienteering skills and gathering readings of the site’s location. Over the years, he took 19 longitudinal and 10 latitudinal readings here to pinpoint the exact spot on his maps. He and his wife, Charlotte, spent some winters here and their attachment to Rocky Mountain House grew as they had their first child at the post. Today, the importance of this area to the development of western Canada is recognized through its designation as a national historic site.
In 1807, Thompson left Rocky Mountain House to explore west of the Rockies, hoping to give the North West Company (NWC) access to new trade partners and rich hunting grounds. He travelled through what would later become Banff National Park, crossing Howse Pass on June 25 of the same year. By crossing the pass and entering trade negotiations with natives of the Columbia River valley, Thompson risked angering the Pikani (Peigan) tribe, who operated a lucrative middleman trade with the Kinbasket and Ktunaxa (Kootenay).
Upon crossing Howse Pass, Thompson emerged in the Columbia River valley. Travelling southwest to the shores of the lake near present-day Invermere, adjacent to Kootenay National Park, he established a new trading post, Kootenae House. This was the first trading post established in the Columbia River drainage and it opened up trade to an entirely new area. Over the next five years, (1807-1812) Thompson ventured further into the Columbia Basin, encountering many Aboriginal groups, and establishing Kullyspel House, Saleesh House and Spokane House west of the Rockies. The Hudson’s Bay Company was not far behind Thompson and the NWC in expanding their trade operations into the Columbia River Valley. Both companies used Howse Pass until 1810 to explore and establish new posts west of the Rockies.
In 1810, on another trip across the Rockies, Thompson found Howse Pass blocked by a party of Pikani (Peigan), who were angered by the fur trade’s expansion into their trading partner’s area. Thwarted in his attempt to reach Kootenae House via Howse Pass, the following year he headed north to find a new path across the Rockies. With the help of an Aboriginal guide he ‘discovered’ Athabasca Pass. Travelling through present day Jasper National Park, up the Athabasca Heritage River to the Whirlpool River, he became one of the first Europeans to use this crossing, but definitely not the last. This pass became a common trade route for the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company for the next 50 years.
On his way across Athabasca Pass the first time, Thompson left William Henry behind to build a rudimentary shelter near the junction of the Miette River and the Athabasca River. The shelter was only used for a few years as a stopping and resting place for travellers. In spite of its short existence, it played a useful role in providing respite for weary travellers. While the location of ‘Henry’s House’ has never been positively confirmed, the hill near the junction of the two rivers, Old Fort Point, marks its general vicinity.
David Thompson’s impact on the opening up of western Canada cannot be overestimated. His explorations, journals and maps captured the heritage of an era for future generations. The places Thompson explored and established help to define our country and who we are as a people.
David Thompson survived many hardships and still persevered in the life he had chosen. He survived numerous accidents, a near fatal case of malaria, debilitating cholera, blindness in one eye and rheumatism in his leg. He also survived the emotional pain of losing three children in his lifetime and spent his last years in dire poverty.
Charlotte Small was not only a wife and mother, but also a great partner for Thompson. Raised by a Cree mother and a Scottish father, she was familiar with both native customs and languages and those of the traders. Unlike many fur traders, Thompson did not abandon his ‘country wife’ when he retired from the trade. Instead he took Charlotte and their children with him to eastern Canada, married Charlotte in a formal church wedding and they spent the rest of their lives together.